Writing Prompt #18: Use a Quote

I hoard quotes in my journals.

Whenever I’m reading, and come across a quote that really moves me, or surprises me, or delights me, I write it down and save it to look over later. Some of these quotes germinate into stories, and some I save, thinking that maybe one day I will discover the perfect story that needs to be headed by them.

You might want to use a quote as inspiration, or you may actually want to include it at the front of your story. Maybe you have some already in mind, but here’s a quick list of a few of my favorites that I’ve been hoarding.

  • “The face of the city changes more quickly, alas! than the mortal heart.” – Charles Baudelaire, Le Cygne
  • “Only the dead don’t argue, and even then there are exceptions.” – Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl who Soared Over Fairyland
  • “So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their ending.” – Tolkien, The Hobbit
  • “Faerie is never very far away, and there are a thousand ways of getting there.” – Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
  • “So?’ Bod said. ‘It’s only death. All of my best friends are dead.” – Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

Writing Prompt #17: A Newspaper Article

Writing a story through a pretend newspaper article can be a lot of fun, and is a great way to get an idea started, or can even be worked into a longer narrative. I’ve seen several stories written through a series of newspaper articles, or incorporating them between passages. I first tried writing my own after reading a make-believe newspaper article written by J.K. Rowling, who often uses this form to extend her Harry Potter universe. My newspaper article is below, and I’d love to see yours if you try this!

Alice Crowned Queen of Wonderland

There’s a new queen in Wonderland.

After her notoriously unfair trail of the Jack of Hearts, the Red Queen was dispossessed, and her tyrannical reign of terror came to an end. The wise, far traveling Alice was called back to Wonderland to take her place as the new Queen. This quite upset the Playing Card Families, who had seen themselves as the rightful lords and ruling candidates. Alice, however, merely poo-pooed their objections, famously saying “Let them drink tea!” and signaling for the Mad Hatter to fill up their tea cups.

Once crowned, Alice immediately set about implementing reform. In Alice’s Wonderland, everyone eats tea cake every day, stories are told in the palace, during which anyone can ask as many questions as they like, and governesses and icky older brothers are outlawed. Most important for the people of Wonderland, there have been no more beheadings, although there has begun a new fashion of growing “nine miles high” (see pg 2), in honor of the new monarch’s heroic actions at that fateful trail of the Jack.

Rules for Writing Fairy Tales

In case you don’t know yet, I absolutely love fairy tales, and have often dreamed of writing my own fairy tales in the traditional language and style of Grimm’s. And yet this is something I really struggle with – something that seems like it should be so easy and is yet so hard – especially combining traditional fairy tale elements and language in a way that is completely unique and original, and not just a mash-up of other tales.

For anyone else who’s struggling with writing fairy tales of their own, I highly recommend Philip Pullman’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It’s not meant as an instructional book or a writing guide – it’s just editions of the stories researched and rewritten in Pullman’s language – but at the end of every story Pullman includes at least one short paragraph about how and why the tale works, and the choices he made in rewriting it. He breaks the tales down and analyzes them in a way that’s really accessible, and his book has helped me a lot in finally buckling down and writing a traditional fairy tale of my own.

Before getting down to work, I drew upon Pullman’s analyses to write down some quick rules of my own to follow as I wrote. Some of these are contradictory, and many go against everything we’re taught about writing, which are two more things that make writing a traditional fairy tale so hard. Here they are, in case they may be helpful to someone else:

1. Plot is love, plot is life

2. Move fast – don’t pause to explain, reflect, or describe

3. Everymen/women and princes/princesses are one and the same, eventually

4. Good things come in threes, or multiples there-of, except when they come in sevens

5. Dues-ex-machinas are fine, especially when they are gifted by wise women or witches

6. Animals can talk

7. Listen and obey, or don’t and face the consequences

8. Youngest sons/daughters are lucky and make the best protagonist

9. The season and the turning there-of is always important and can be used as a metaphor

An Exercise from Hemingway and Bruce McAllister

In the latest issue of Writers Ask, Bruce McAllister writes: “Hemingway’s favorite exercise was to take a favorite scene from another writer’s novel, try to recreate it in words as close as possible to the original, and compare the two versions. Every writer I’ve ever known who’s tried this has been blown away by it. You learn instantly, among many other things, whether you’re an underwriter or overwriter, a visual writer or an audial one, have an ear for dialogue or prefer summarizing speech.”

I think this is a great idea for evaluating your own writing, and without a critique group at the moment, I’m always looking for help in looking critically at my writing. Though I haven’t tried this yet, I plan to soon!

Writing Prompt #16: A Word List

I don’t always have great results with writing poems from a list of words, but occasionally it works really well. This is my favorite word list that I’ve used for a poem, and I think fitting for November!

Use this list of 10 words to create your poem, and feel free to cheat with tenses/prefixes/etc.:

  1. November
  2. tea
  3. abandon
  4. water
  5. breathe
  6. crack
  7. yellow
  8. guardian
  9. tattoo
  10. glass

This is the poem I wrote from these words:

Abandoned Farmhouse

Where did they go,
those whose frayed gingham curtains
still snap in November winds,
whose kitchen table is still set
for the men to come in,
whose house still stands
in the silence of a drawn breath?

Where did they go?
In the fields, glass bottles wink
in the sunlight like water.

Where did they go?
Those singers of the season’s change,
low chants rising from the yellow fields,
their tobacco left drying
in the decaying wooden barns
tattooed with graffiti and time,
and now harboring a murder
of crows.

Where did they go?
Dust felts the floorboards
and furs the Sunday dishes.

Where did they go?
Those guardians of the rusted metal tractor,
of the fifty pound feed sack
and the trampled grey dirt.

Where did they go?
Did they read this end in the tea leaves
still clinging to their cracked white cups?

Writing Prompt #15: A Letter

Writing prompt #15 is to write a letter as or to one of your favorite characters. I do this more often than I would like to admit. Bonus points if this character (or their creator) has an email or physical address and you send it!


I wrote a letter to Bailey from Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus after finishing the book for the first time. At the end of the novel, Bailey hands “you” a business card printed with his email address, bailey@nightcircus.com. Today I finally worked up the nerve to send it out.


Mr. Bailey

The Night Circus
Mr. – 
I hope I am not the only person who has been so bold as to write you at this email address, gleaned from a small scene in a fairy tale of a novel. However, truth be told, this small scene may be my favorite of all those in the novel which features you so prominently. For what is better than, after reading a beautiful dream, the revelation that the dream goes on – that it has not ended, but exists here, here in your own mundane world of email and the internet?
I would like a dream to fall into. A story-dream like yours, one which comes upon you suddenly and demands that you choose. I hope that, like you, I will one day choose to shoulder the dream.
Please come to North Carolina.
Bring Kiko.



For those of you wondering, the email address is real! Bailey’s auto-response reads:

“If you are inquiring as to the itinerary of the circus, we apologize,
but it is against our policy to disclose information about current or
upcoming locations.

Other inquiries will be responded to in as timely a manner as possible.”

Will he write back? We’ll see!

Writing Prompt #14, An “After” Poem

This week, I tried writing an “After” poem for the first time. Though I’m not sure how successful I was, I found the exercise to be both challenging and a lot of fun. For this exercise, choose a famous traditional poet (Frost, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Rossetti) and one of their more well-known poems to write a poem “after.” I chose Christina Rossetti’s “Song.”

When writing your poem, keep the first line of your example, with it’s traditional language and meter, and then write the rest of your poem using colloquial English. I tried to keep my form and meter at least somewhat close to the original, and used Rossetti’s “remember” and “forget” in the final two lines of each stanza. You might want to use an entire line of the original somewhere else in your poem.

Here’s Rossetti’s original poem:


When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

And my “After” poem:

Rossetti’s Song

When I am dead, my dearest,
don’t marry anybody else.
Let no one cook your favorite
stir fry noodles, if I can’t.
Maybe you should get a dog
to sleep curled in the curve of your body.
Remember where you left your wallet,
and don’t forget to turn off the stove.

Travel, you’ve always wanted to.
Tell me about the rains
in Paris, the snow on the fjords,
the red dust of the Grand Canyon.
I won’t hear you,
but I’ll listen just the same.

Take the dog with you. He’ll remember
to touch your hand each night with his nose,
to listen until you forget
he’s not the one you were talking to.

Writing Prompt #13: The World Around You

One of my favorite things to do to relax is to just take a few minutes to breathe, to look out of the window, to watch people and listen in on conversations, and then record what I’ve seen and heard. I know several writers who make it their routine to do this once every day, and have told me that in the process they become both better observers and better writers. In times when I don’t have my journal or laptop with me, like today at work (hard times!), I type myself a good old-fashioned email and title it whatever comes into my head. Here’s today’s observation. I’d love to hear an observation from you own day as well!


It iced last night. When I walked out of the apartment this morning to go to work, everything was covered with a thin sheet of ice, the pine needles of the trees around our building glazed and translucent in the weak morning light, icicles dripping from the rooftops. My car was frozen over, and I had to crack the ice with my scraper to get the door open.

It’s 11 am, and still everything outside is grey. Looking down from the sixth floor of our building, Raleigh looks like a forest of silent white trees, their limbs and clinging leaves frosted and still, flowing in crackling waves to the heavy grey sky.

Laura is here from New York, and says she should have stayed there. “Raleigh looks like a forest in one of those sad fairy tales,” she says. “The ones where children go through the wardrobe and never come back.”

And I can almost see it, the traffic frozen, the wind gusting down the silent streets between the abandoned white skyscrapers, and the children, a brother and sister, bundled in their North Face parkas, tiptoeing between the frosted trees, their cheeks red in the cold, the city fading to mist behind them.

Writing Prompt # 12: A List Poem

List poems are a great way to ease into working with poetry forms. There are a lot of ways to write a list poem, so don’t be afraid to tweak this to however best fits your poem. However, you should choose a theme (in this case, I chose people I’ve kissed), and start each line, stanza, or couplet with a new entry to your list (in this case, a name). I chose to start each short 4-5 line stanza with a new name, and also end each of these stanzas with the word “kissing,” which I also used as a running title. I also used assonance and alliteration to build a rhythm. I’m not yet satisfied with the final two lines, I think mainly because they fall away from the “i”/”ee”/”ea” sound rhythm I was building.


Michael in the high beams,
fifteen, and my body lit
up with the soft pressure
of his lips, kissing

Keenan over and over again
in the cold wind, our noses
nuzzling, his hands
under my jacket, seeking
heat, kissing

his ex-girlfriend at a party,
her mouth like vodka,
my fingers in her hair,
was not so different from kissing

my best friend, five years old,
hidden in her closet
with the scent of her skin, eager
and clumsy at this thing
someone told us was love.

Writing Prompt # 11: Fairy Tales

Revamping fairy tales is one of my favorite writing exercises. I absolutely love reading new versions of these strange old stories, as well as writing my own! There’s a million different ways you could take this exercise, whether you go for a more traditional and strict elaboration, or change the tale’s setting, characters, or genders completely. In this case, I chose to change as many aspects of my fairy tale as I could while still keeping it recognizable.

Rojored riding hood

Once there was a chica who was a predator who was a wolf who was a senorita and she followed me home because she said she liked the way I looked in my red dress. When mi abuela said good girls don’t date lobas she gobbled up her soul and spat out the bones.

The wolf moved in because I couldn’t tell her no but on El Dia de los Muertos when we got out Granny’s bones for the dance –

And man could that musico from up La Avenida de los Muertos make them dance, the way he sawed away at his violin! Even La Loba had to get up and dance the flamenco, spinning me around in a circle of red flames.

La Loba danced so hard she shook my granny’s soul loose and it went flying out of her boca and back into mi abuela and the musico chased that wolf out of the feast with his violin, her howling all the way.

After that we lived pretty happily I guess but sometimes I still see a girl all bright eyes and bushy tail my what big eyes you have and I want to put on my red dress and bailar beside her all the way home.